State Legislators Review Bill Drafts to Revamp Court Security
Judge says ‘threats against the judiciary’ are an issue in Wyoming
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Sep 22, 2023
Pictured above is Wyoming Supreme Court Justice John G. Fenn. (Courtesy photo from Wyoming Supreme Court’s website)
By Shen Wu Tan
Special to the Wyoming Truth
State legislators are reviewing ways to improve court security at the urging of judges who seek stronger protective measures.
The Joint Judiciary Committee this week considered proposed bill drafts that would establish punishments for intimidation of judges, prohibit the publication of judges’ personal information and mandate county sheriffs to provide security for courts.
The bill draft, 24LSO-0062 working draft four, states that a person who attempts to influence, intimate, impede or retaliate against a judge or a judge’s family member by force or threats commits a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years, a fine of no more than $5,000 or both.
“Threats against the judiciary are on the rise nationwide,” Catherine Rogers, a district court judge for Laramie County, told committee members Monday. “It’s becoming a more and more significant issue, and we’re seeing it here at home.”
She spoke about a male colleague who was harassed in writing by a disgruntled litigant with a history of mental illness who later showed up at the man’s front door. Rogers also mentioned female colleagues from other parts of Wyoming who have been threatened with sexual assault.
“While it is not our job to make people mad – our job is to administer justice, of course – the work that we do makes very dangerous people mad,” she said. “I have a 12-year-old son…. Every time the doorbell rings, that kid goes straight to the door… And every time the doorbell rings, I’m terrified.”
Wendy Bartlett, a circuit court judge for Campbell County, who also testified at the committee meeting, shared a story about how she received a call from Gillette law enforcement last month regarding an inmate who said he arranged to have a bomb sent to her house. She added no charges have been filed yet against the inmate who made the threat.
“My experience is just one of many that judges of Wyoming have dealt with frequently,” Bartlett said. “It’s time to protect our public officials.”
Meanwhile, Wyoming Supreme Court Justice John G. Fenn suggested committee members support funding for judges to install security systems at their homes, but noted that the bill draft is a step in the right direction.
During discussion, Rep. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) recommended altering language of the bill draft to reflect the conduct legislators want to prohibit, such as adding words like “harass” before making a motion to move the bill to the committee’s next meetings on Nov. 6 and 7. The committee approved the motion.
Other court security measures
Committee members also heard about a bill draft that would prohibit the publication of judges’ personal information.
The bill draft, 24LSO-0064 working draft four, prohibits a person from making personal information about a judge or a judge’s immediate family available online if the publication and dissemination of the information “poses an imminent and serious threat” to their safety and if the threat is “reasonably apparent” to the person by posting the contents on the internet to be serious or imminent.
Under the bill draft, personal information includes a home address, home and mobile phone numbers, photographs of the home or individual, directions to the home and photograph of any judge’s vehicle. Anyone who violates the bill would be found guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to $5,000 or both.
In response, Rep. Ken Chestek (D-Laramie) suggested the committee wrap the bill draft into the previous bill draft that prohibits intimidation of a judge. Committee members might further discuss it during their November meetings.
Lastly, the committee heard about 24LSO-0065 working draft four, which requires county sheriffs or their deputies to provide security for all courts of record in their counties. This would include the presence of the sheriff or one or more deputies in each courtroom when in session; escorts within the courtroom, outside the courtroom or outside the courtroom but within the sheriff’s county for a judge when requested by the judge; and any other “reasonable security measures” requested by a judge.
Commenting on the bill draft, Lynda Bush, circuit court judge for Crook and Weston counties, told committee members she’s never been denied a request for security, but that only having security when requested can be challenging. She noted it can be difficult to determine when security is needed solely based on the case file.
Multiple law enforcement officials opposed the bill draft, including Allen Thompson, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chief of Police.
“While the fiscal issues with this bill are paramount, it’s actually the workforce issues that are more of a concern for us, because even if the fiscal issues were met, the workforce issues are something we continue to struggle with,” Thompson said at the meeting.
Levi Dominguez, sheriff for Sheridan County, testified that the bill draft as it currently stands would cause significant staffing issues and possibly negatively impact overall safety of the state by pulling law enforcement off the streets to supervise courts when manpower is short.
“I understand that the safety of the courts and everyone in the courts is paramount,” Dominguez said. “But again, this would certainly tie the hands of many sheriffs having to have law enforcement in every courtroom in every hearing.” Instead, he recommended an alternative bill draft that would require sheriffs or deputies to monitor a court proceeding under a reasonable request for security.
The committee members did not take action on the bill draft. Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) suggested sending a memo to the appropriations committee to give them a heads up about the issue, which could have budget implications.
If passed by the legislature, the bills would go into effect July 1, 2024.